The public discussion over whether a given UAS flight is permissible has centered on whether the operator is a hobbyist or a commercial operator. Unfortunately, airspace restrictions seem to be largely overlooked. The University of Michigan’s interaction with the FAA this weekend has, however, pushed the airspace issues back into the spotlight.
This weekend the University of Michigan held a series of events to celebrate the centennial of its Department of Aerospace Engineering — the oldest aeronautical engineering education program in the United States. As part of the festivities, the school planned to have a UAS fly the football into Michigan Stadium, a.k.a. “the Big House,” before the game. Skipping over the potentially sticky issue of whether this would be a commercial activity or whether the flight could be flown by a hobbyist, it appears that there was a general lack of awareness of the airspace issues that ultimately doomed the planned flight.
Pursuant to 49 U.S.C. § 40103(a), “the United States Government has exclusive sovereignty of airspace of the United States.” The statute goes on to provide that it is the duty of the FAA Administrator to establish areas that require additional protection in the “interest of national defense” and take actions to protect those areas, including restrictions on air operations. Since 9/11, the FAA has declared that the area surrounding stadiums like Michigan Stadium are “National Defense Airspace.” As a result, on game day, all flights are prohibited below 3000 feet AGL within 3 nautical miles of the stadium.
Violations of national defense airspace go beyond a mere civil enforcement action. Under 49 U.S.C. § 46307, in addition to a fine, a pilot can be imprisoned for up to one year.
It is important to note that there is no hobbyist defense to a violation of these restrictions. When Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, they specifically included a provision in the Special Rule for Model Aircraft stating:
Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit the authority of the (FAA) Administrator to pursue enforcement action against persons operating model aircraft who endanger the safety of the national airspace system.
Flying the football into the stadium with a UAS would have been a fitting tribute to the University of Michigan’s long history in aeronautical research. Hopefully, this disappointing misunderstanding will lead to a better awareness on behalf of all UAS operators that they have to be familiar with restrictions in the airspace they want to fly.
(Originally posted September 22, 2014)